The Opportunity Cliche - Josef Shapiro - Clear and Open

Creating a “Safe Place” so Critical Thinking Can Flourish

As the 2020 presidential race looms in the not-too-far distance, there will be frequent examples among the candidates in which excuses, deflections, and a general lack of critical thinking will be on display. Unfortunately it isn’t just the politicians that are guilty.

If you ask 1,000 people if they can think critically, the majority would of course answer “yes.” 

And yet, scientific research tells us the opposite is true. There are two phenomena, in particular, which account for most of our poor critical thinking skills. 

Why Can’t We Think Straight?

The first is called the Backfire Effect. It happens when someone doubles down on their beliefs in the face of facts that prove them wrong. It’s sort of like confirmation bias on steroids. 

The second, which I’ve discussed on the podcast, is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is our tendency to drastically overestimate or underestimate our deficiencies rather than seeing ourselves as we are. 

If you were to look back on your social media feeds the past couple of weeks, I’d be willing to bet you’d be able to spot the pervasive lack of critical thinking. The more emotionally-charged an issue is, the more likely these “effects” will hinder someone’s ability to think straight.

The Problem for Managers

If you are a manager, this leaves you with a difficult choice: 

  1. Work around deficits of critical thinking and try to get results through employees as they are.
  2. Challenge deficits of critical thinking, and risk hurting people’s feelings.

The first choice is supervision, the second is management. You can see why so many people choose supervision, because it’s easier and more comfortable. But as in so many areas of life, that comfort comes with a price: wasted resources and compromised results. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that supervision, as opposed to management, is one of the top five root problems of all businesses. 

Supervision is a dynamic that can drag down an entire organization as it invisibly burns through its fuel sources of time, money, and energy.

Creating a Safe Space for Critical Thinking

In Project Aristotle, Google discovered five key dynamics that create a successful team. The most important factor. which is the foundation for all the others, is psychological safety: the ability for people to feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other. 

We all care a lot about how others see us. The safer people feel emotionally, the more likely they are to admit mistakes and take risks. This safety also translates into employee retention and the ability to utilize diverse ideas.

When people feel psychologically safe, they’re open to having their thinking challenged. This is the environment where management works, and critical thinking can evolve and thrive.

How to create psychological safety is a larger question, of course, but it begins by making it important. Google found that kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week increased psychology safety metrics by 6%. This is a simple and actionable place to begin.

What You Think is the Problem, Isn’t.

What I see in my work is that leaders almost invariably misidentify their management problems. They see the symptoms in a lack of revenue, insufficient cash flow, absenteeism, employee turnover, customer dissatisfaction, lack of innovation, and nearly anything else. 

Like a house built on a faulty foundation, it’s difficult to directly experience that problem while you fix symptoms like pooling water, crumbling concrete, and warped floorboards. But if you don’t address the invisible foundation issue, one day you may not have a house at all.

Management is almost always where the problem begins, and therefore where it inevitably must end.

If you’re ready to figure out what’s making your foundation weak, let’s talk. We’re working on these types of problems every day in the Dojo.

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